Forms of Inquiry

A new exhibition at the Architectural Association asks selected graphic designers to conduct an investigation into an area of architectural practice

The relationship between graphic design and architecture is an area rarely examined, yet a new exhibition held at the Architectural Association in October is set to change this. Forms of Inquiry: The Architecture of Critical Graphic Design features the work of 20 designers in a complex show that reiterates the critical nature inherent in graphic design and the parallels it contains with architectural practice.

Instead of simply requesting the designers to produce a new piece of work, curator Zak Kyes, who is also art director at the AA, asked them to take on an inquiry based upon an aspect of architecture that they find particularly inspiring. “We’ve chosen designers whose practice goes beyond commissions and ventures into research,” explains Kyes. “In every case they’re designers whose work challenges the role of graphic design and the context in which it’s produced. We want to look beyond the obvious, it was important for us not to look at architecture in the conventional way.”

Each designer’s contribution to the exhibition is three-fold. Firstly there will be examples of their previous work, to set their projects for the AA in context. Alongside this will be information about the architectural inquiries they have explored, before finally each designer will exhibit an A0 sized poster, created as the outcome of their inquiry.

Shown here are four examples of designers from the exhibition, which illustrate the wide variety of ideas and methodologies that will be explored. Forms of Inquiry opens at the AA on 8 October, and a publication, edited by Kyes with Mark Owens, will accompany the exhibition, alongside a Reading Room, co-ordinated by Wayne Daly. More info is at


Task Explain Their Inquiry:

A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction by Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa and Murray Silverstein of the Center for Environmental Structure of Berkeley, California and its accompanying website serve as a companion to our inquiry. Pattern Language describes a collection of 253 highly structured patterns divided into three broad categories: towns, buildings, and construction, and suggests that the same set of laws can be applied to structures at any scale. As a practical guide to help citizens better understand their environment (and even build their own houses), this book encourages a democratisation of information that relieves the architect of his/her role as the exclusive idea provider. In turn, Alexander advises architects to consider new projects in a global, everyday, and political context, emphasising their obligation to shape society in a responsible manner.

Task Newsletter ( uses Alexander’s “Green-Making Sequence” pattern as a starting point. The author clearly outlines the steps needed to turn an unused neighbourhood site into a green, cooperative meeting space, starting by identifying local flora and ending with petitioning the city for future subsidies. As with all of his patterns, it should be appreciated first and foremost for what it is: a deceptively simple and literal strategy for improving one’s environment. At the same time, the knowledge that his patterns are applicable to any endeavour encourages the reader to simultaneously translate them into any personally relevant context – in our case, the structure of a publication venture: a newsletter.


Luke Powell Explains Hudson-Powell’s Inquiry:

In Edward Booth-Clibborn’s book, The Language of Graphics, which was published in 1980, a chapter on The Environment and Graphic Art has always stood out for Jody and me. The text and images take the reader briefly through the history of graphics in the environment, from revolutionary Mexican murals in the 1920s, through the neon signs of advertising and on to Supergraphics. It’s here that the work of architects and designers overlaps, the common traits being a focus on colour, geometric or abstract pattern and typography.

Amongst our selected projects, it’s hard to distinguish which have had Supergraphics considered as part of the initial architectural design, and which have used Supergraphics as a tool for regeneration. In both circumstances, though, the results are similar – graphics and colour are used to benefit the people occupying the space, and it’s this that we found exciting. In recent times, the relationship between architecture and colour has seemed cautious for the most part, with neutrality as the default solution. But when a council estate, institutional building or industrial structure tires, then the option to redecorate its exterior and interior to give it new life, is often overlooked, despite being a cheaper, quicker solution than rebuilding.

It’s easy to see why Supergraphics failed in the long term, and how its large pop art designs were very much of the time. It’s also easy to see how, from an architect’s perspective, it’s just a façade, when what you really need is a new building. But Supergraphics, like graphic design, is immediate, and should be considered as a viable way for buildings to stay alive and engaging.

We are already in a time, technologically, where the concept of Supergraphics can be reconsidered. What was previously a means of decoration post construction, can now be considered as part of the fabric of a building: intelligent materials that can change colour, electronic wallpaper that can change design, augmented reality headsets that change your concrete room into a palace. It seems relevant to discuss how these technologies will be used, before they are engulfed as media for advertisers. Colour and space could now, more than ever, be used as a way for people to control their own environment.


Julia Born On Her Inquiry:

As an extension to my previous work, Secret Instructions, which explored the language of stage directions, this inquiry focuses on the spatial dimension of movement instruction. The mapping of movement is just as elusive as the recording of thought. A countless number of forms have been established that have attempted to solve the problem of recording, preserving and transferring movement into a readable form. Some of the early graphic recordings of dance movements were formed from simple pattern-like floor plans that marked the paths of the performers from a bird’s-eye view. Later these developed into more complex systems that used symbols and letter codes, or borrowed the signs of musical notation. Labanotation, invented in 1928 by the dance theorist and former architect, Rudolf von Laban [after whom London’s Laban centre is named], became the first notation to be designed from the perspective of the performer, as opposed to that of the audience.

Methods of instructing a body on stage have ranged from total control and precision to open structures. Playwrite Samuel Beckett was known for his serious concern for structure and meticulous description. On the other hand, choreographer Merce Cunningham was influenced by Zen and Dadasim and deliberately operated with processes of chance in order to liberate himself from the restrictions of convention. Similarly, critic and writer Richard Kostelanetz’s book, Scenarios, compiles scripts to be performed that “induce travellers to take routes they had not experienced before, perhaps making perceptions they would otherwise have missed”.

The challenge of transcribing movement can be seen to lie within the simultaneity of its elements: the movement itself in three dimensions, the concept/idea behind it, alignment in space, and time/duration as the fourth dimension. Purely verbal directions without a physical demonstration of the movement or the use of metaphors are rather imprecise. The need for reference is crucial for spatial orientation as well as for communication in general: the meaning of a basic description such as “up” or “down” can alter depending on the standpoint. These blind spots of language create interesting moments of ambiguity that will be explored in the show in collaboration with performer Alexandra Bachzetsis.






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